November 16 – Just four months after winning the delayed Euro 2020, Italy have missed out on an automatic place at the World Cup finals and will have to rely on the playoffs to get them to Qatar.
The Azzurri went into their final qualifier against Northern Ireland top of Group C on goal difference and undefeated, but a goalless draw in Belfast combined with Switzerland’s thumping 4-0 win over Bulgaria sent the jubilant Swiss straight through to the finals.
The prospect of yet another play-off will bring back painful memories of 2017, when Italy were beaten over two legs by Sweden to miss out on the World Cup the following year for the first time since 1958, a result described as the “apocalypse” by Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport.
It could have all been so different if Italy this time round had Jorginho not missed crucial penalties in each of the draws against Switzerland. For manager Roberto Mancini, though, the prospect of a play-off holds no fear.
“We will make it to the World Cup in March and then maybe we will even win it. I am totally confident,” said Mancini.
“Despite controlling matches, we’re struggling to score goals at the moment. It’s a shame because we should have finished things off sooner in this group. We need to rediscover what has set us apart until now and remain completely calm until March. We should have won against Bulgaria and had two penalties against Switzerland. These are games that could have finished in our favour. I’m completely confident about the play-offs.”
England, like Switzerland, are heading straight to Qatar after romping to their biggest competitive group game victory – 10-0 over the part-timers of San Marino.
Improving Scotland, like Italy, will be seeded in the playoffs after a surprise 2-0 victory over Group F winner Denmark, whose perfect record in qualifying came to an end. Portugal will be seeded too as will probably Sweden and Wales.
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